In the early hours of a January morning, the main building at the Old Dock Elementary School campus in Columbus County went up in flames.
No one was hurt, but the school suffered huge losses, including the art room, computer lab, administrative offices, auditorium, library and several classrooms.
Principal Ronna Gore remembers how the extent of the damage hit her on the first day back at school when she couldn’t sign a form.
“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t even have a pencil,’ ” she said.
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Meanwhile, more than 100 miles north, the community at Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh was already looking for ways to help Old Dock.
They would take care of pencils, they decided. And also pens, crayons, paper, books, staples, tape, tissues, folders, notebooks and more – all of the seemingly small things that power a school.
For a week, they held a supply drive, asking families to give what they could to a community that had lost so much.
Fifth-grade teacher Sara Johnson said it was an easy decision to help Old Dock. She and her colleagues knew how devastated they would be if their classrooms burned and their students didn’t have what they needed.
“Our role as educators is to help every kid learn to the best of their ability,” she said.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group from Lacy loaded up boxes of supplies and made the trip to Whiteville.
When they arrived, the smell of the fire hung in the air, and piles of dirty, twisted rubble still sat on the campus.
Lacy fourth-grader Mary Reade Hamilton, 9, took it all in. She was most impressed by the volunteers, who turned up from all over to support Old Dock in any way they could.
“What I liked most was seeing the people who came there and helped out,” she said.
Lacy Elementary second-grade teacher Staci Hester, who grew up near Old Dock, first heard news of the fire from her family. At school, she told fellow teacher Johnson, who also has roots in the area.
The two then shared the news with Assistant Principal JeLynn Crane in a quick hallway conversation. Soon, the three were texting each other to plan the supply drive with help from Mary Sue Edwards, a counselor at the school.
Students eagerly embraced the concept. Their first question always was whether anyone had been hurt in the fire. Then they wanted to know more about students at Old Dock, what their lives were like and what would happen to them now.
Some students made posters to encourage their classmates to give. Another little girl asked her friends to bring art supplies for Old Dock to her birthday party.
Johnson said the supply drive meant students had another way to explore the character traits of empathy and kindness.
“We talk about it, but until they live it, they don’t realize how much those traits can have an effect on others,” she said.
Gore, the Old Dock principal, said she noticed the Lacy volunteers had arrived right after she looked up and saw children playing on the school’s playground for the first time. It was a fitting moment, a sign of how the support of people near and far will help the school recover, she said.
“Lacy Elementary is definitely going to be a friend for a lifetime,” Gore said.